Canada hopes pro softball league will help in push to Olympic podium

​For the Canadian women's softball team, the road back to the Olympics may include a stop in a U.S. professional league.

Inclusion in National Pro Fastpitch key training for Tokyo 2020

Danielle Lawrie was nominated for Canada's 2019 Pan Am Games team in Lima, Peru, on Wednesday. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

​For the Canadian women's softball team, the road back to the Olympics may include a stop in a U.S. professional league.

Softball was not included at the last two Olympics before being reinstated for the 2020 Games in Tokyo. Team Canada coach Mark Smith said quality matchups have been hard to come by in recent years as a result.

"The toughest challenge for us is that each year, we have to carve out our own competition schedule and not always are you able to play the quality that you'd like because none of the more competitive teams want to see each other too often," he said.

Negotiations are in the works for Team Canada to join National Pro Fastpitch, a women's pro league that would guarantee 50 games against top talent as they work toward 2020.

The league has already become something of a preparation ground for international teams, Smith said, with American players sprinkled throughout and Australia and China fielding their own teams. Adding Canadian talent would be the natural next step.

"They really can say that they have the best players in the world if this is able to go forward," Smith said.

The Canadian team, ranked third in the world behind Japan and the U.S., is in Surrey, B.C., this week competing for the Canada Cup.

It's a tournament that 22-year-old Emma Entzminger used to attend with her hometown club, the Victoria Devils. Though she was always excited about getting on the field, the annual event also offered a chance to watch the national team in action and dream about the future.

"It's pretty cool to see that you looked up to those girls and watched them and saw how passionate they were about the game and how good they were and how much fun they were having," said the third base player, now a rising star with Team Canada.

"And you were driven to get to that level. And it's cool to live in those shoes now."

Canada's 20-woman roster features a good balance of fresh faces and veteran talent, including three women who were part of the team that finished fourth at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

Smith said the group has a depth that wasn't always present with previous teams, allowing for consistency no matter who's in the pitching circle or out in the field.

"I just think the group are playing with a bit of a different level of confidence than we have historically. And that comes from seeing those around you perform better," he said.

Olympic veteran Jennifer Salling agrees that previous versions of the national team didn't always have the confidence necessary to win big games.

Things are different now, said the 31-year-old, who plays third base. This crew really understand the possibility of making it to the podium come 2020 — and they're starting to share that vision with others, she said.

"People are starting to realize that Canada's really good. We can hit, we can pitch," Salling said.

The Burnaby, B.C., native played shortstop on the 2008 team and said chasing her Olympic dreams for a second time is incredible.

"If I make it to 2020, that's it for me. I'll be 33 and it'll be time to move on with my life," Salling said. "So the fact that I get to do it in the way that I feel it should be done ... it's cool. Because I want that to be my last go, to buy into something bigger than me."